The NBA slam dunk contest has been active since 1984 continuously except for a couple years in the nineties. One of the most common complaints, however, is that it isn't like it was in the past and almost every year people lament the death of the contest. That's not true at all, and the past decade had a number of both memorable contests and unique dunks. It's not like the 80's and 90's held an impossible standard because there were a lot of duds in those contests and non-stars winning the title. In order to separate timelines, I'll use the Vince Carter 2000 contest as a divider. No one complains about that one, but people will usually take shots at the next ones. What follows is a description of each subsequent contest with notable dunks and videos.
Desmond Mason dodges bricks from competitors to win title
Overall, not the best contest, but it was also following one of the most amazing ones of all time from half-man, half-amazing Vince Carter. In fact, the crowd was muted during most of the dunks, and I think it was because Carter set such a high standard that even now a decade later we're still judging dunks by what he did. The champion this year, Desmond Mason, won as a wiry, two-leg power dunker, and in the next couple contests he would cement his status as one of the best dunkers in contest history, though somewhat forgotten.
One of the most common mechanisms of the contest is that players take from past ones and build on them. For example, Baron Davis in 2001 had a dunk where his teammate David Wesley was laying on the ground with a video camera and threw up a lob, which Davis would grab and dunk. Exactly ten years later Baron would reprise this by switching places and filming Griffin jumping over a KIA to win the contest. What's stayed the same between that gulf the same scoring system was used for most of the dunks. One gripe I have to mention though is that if a missed dunk nets you a score of 6/10, then what's the point of numbers 1 through 5? The contest ends with Mason as the easy winner, but Baron Davis tries to upstage the contest with one of the worst attempts in history when he puts on a blindfold and misses the rim by over a foot even though he cheated with a tiny hole in the fabric over the eye, and when he goes back to the bench he can hear me say, "I was faking it!" Fun fact: Tim Donaghy was a ref here, making me wonder if any bets were placed on the contest.
-Baron Davis with a huge one-hand dunk off a bounce pass.
-Maggette does a frontflip before jumping up to dunk the ball for a basic two-hand. Crappy dunk by itself, but I want to see someone pull off a real flip dunk in the contest.
-Jonathan Bender with a left-handed dunk from the free throw line (foot was halfway across the line.)
-Desmond Mason jumps above a bent over Rashard Lewis for a one hand dunk off two legs outside of the key.
-Mason with a two-footed dunk with the left hand and a bit of a lean from nearly the free throw line (one foot was on the line, the other a couple feet inside.)
The Dunk Wheel fiasco.
The dreaded dunking wheel -- once a round, guys had to spin a cheap-looking, 70's game show style wheel on the court that would point to a specific dunk they would have to perform. Yes, it looked as dumb as it sounds. The wheel is stupid for many reasons. One is that dunkers have different skillsets. Some dunks were possible by palming the ball, but not everyone dunker can; some were only possible jumping off one leg, but many great dunkers prefer a two-leg power dunk. Francis lost to Gerald Wallace when he drew a statue of liberty because he can't palm the ball. Jason Richardson nearly loses in the final round because of the Dr. J free throw line dunk, which is virtually impossible for a dunker who usually dunks off two legs rather than one.
The contest -- a decent one with a great performance by Richardson -- was marred by the wheel. The league apparently was in cahoots against Richardson because his last attempt was nearly derailed when he lost the ball under his legs going up and it was almost counted as an attempt. Since the dunk contest is is serious business, they're already talking about every dunk possible has been done, but it's been ten years and many never seen before have been completed since. Notable missed dunk: Francis tried to touch the backboard with the ball using two hands and then dunk it, which would have been amazing for his size.
-Desmond Mason with a nice windmill to start things off.
-Jason Richardson immediately upstages Mason with a beautiful 360 windmill.
-Richardson catches a break with the dunk wheel by landing on a Dominique Wilkins windmill. He pulls off a spectacular one. Perfect score.
-Gerald Wallace pulls off a free throw line dunk. Lost in the debate about where his foot was is the angle to the basket he took. It's difficult to measure in the video, but it appears he's two feet off center, making the dunk just a little bit harder to complete. (It adds nearly two inches to the 15 feet needed.)
-The winning Richardson dunk was a beautiful off the bounce two hand windmill reverse. It was perfect -- the catch, the swing with the ball, the quick twist in midair, and the legs kicking for punctuation. Almost a perfect score, but the "internet" judge gave him a 9. And you wonder why people are against the fan voting in the 2012 contest.
The Richardson-Mason Duel in Atlanta.
This is one of the best contests and typically is overlooked. It was a duel between Mason as the 2001 champion defeated in the first round last year by the 2002 champion Jason Richardson. Richard Jefferson was a virtual no-show since his best attempt was a reverse arm in the rim (a la Vince Carter) dunk where his arm slipped and it was merely a one-handed dunk. The contest came down to the final dunk with Richardson needing a 49 or higher to win, and he pulled off an amazing dunk that solidified his status as one of the best contest dunkers ever. This led the commentators to exclaim that the dunk contest was back ... which say they virtually every year this decade.
Amare Stoudemire was a rookie, but he stands out as the best player from the contest. Even Richard Jefferson later on would be invited to the all-star game. People push for stars to enter the contest every year, but if you look at the history even going back to the 80's what's typical is that young guys full of potential are the participants and winners. Sometimes they turn into all-time greats like Jordan and Bryant, and sometimes the dunk contest is their fifteen minutes of fame like Desmond Mason and Cedric Ceballos. Jason Richardson stands out here as one of the best contest dunkers ever with both a high degree of technical difficulty and style. Notable missed dunk: Amare Stoudemire with a double pump 360.
-Amare Stoudemire goes down the baseline with a between the legs dunk on the other side of the rim while falling away.
-Desmond Mason with a rock-the-cradle type dunk while running at an angle to the rim. Kenny complains that he only rocked it once, but so did Jordan.
-Jason Richardson has an off the bounce one hand windmill. Like with most of his dunks, what's best is the flawless execution, power, and punctuation. Perfect score.
-Desmond's Mason's second dunk was a one-handed scissor-kick lean-dunk that's more enjoyable each time you watch it.
-Jason Richardson's next dunk was an off the bounce 360 double pump one handed dunk. Perfect score.
-In the final round, Mason executes a perfect left-handed between the legs dunk with great elevation, distance covered, and power. Perfect score.
-Jason Richardson sees the Mason dunk, and raises the left-handed between the legs dunk by doing it off a bounce and finishing with a reverse dunk. Perfect score.
Fred Jones reaches back to defeat Richardson's impossible dunks
Not as good as last year's contest, but it was still pretty strong. One of the best aspects of the contest was the ongoing comedy of Chris Anderson, one of the few white participants whose hair prompts Jack Nicholson to literally point and laugh at him. He's later reprimanded for his hairdo when the judges only gave him a 42 on his windmill reverse and the crowd booed the score. Fred Jones in the next dunk throws down a one handed dunk falling away off a bounce and gets a 50; the commentators don't know why the score was so much higher than Anderson's. A dunk later Charles Barkley provides his usual comedy by threatening to beat a child on national TV because the child gave Jason Richardson's windmill a six.
Fred Jones squeaks by Chris Anderson because of Fred's perfect score on his first dunk, and given that Jason Richardson missed his last dunk in the final round it's actually conceivable Chris Anderson could have been the dunk champion. Alas, we weren't given the gift of Anderson as the champion, and Jones wins the contest because of an epic off-the-bounce, stretch-your-arms-wide dunk. He barely won it, however, because during a missed lob dunk the ball hit the backboard and banked in, which according to the strict rules of the contest was a dunk attempt and he was thus rewarded with a low score. Another instance of the rules getting in the way of the dunks. Luckily, for him, Richardson missed his final attempt, but his misses were spectacular. Notable missed dunks: Jason Richardson had two missed dunks in the finals that would have ranked among the best ever. The first was a 360 between the legs dunk off a bounce. Keep in mind that Richardson was one of the first to do variations of the between the legs dunk. The second was a 360 elbow in the rim dunk.
-Chris Anderson two-handed windmill reverse.
-Chris Anderson's off the backboard two-hand dunk is also impressive for how high he gets.
-Jason Richardson makes the building explode with an off the backboard between the legs dunk where the elevation was superb and the execution was impeccable. Perfect score.
-Fred Jones with an off the bounce one hand dunk where he has to stretch back while falling away and drifting from one side of the basket to the other to dunk it. It's even more impressive in slow-motion when you see how far away from the rim the ball is from the small 6' 3"-ish Jones.
"It's time for the Birdman to fly."
This contest was a coming out party for Josh Smith, who has sadly yet to be picked for an all-star team while teammate Joe Johnson inexplicably continues to rack up appearances. However, the most memorable part was Chris Anderson's descent into unintentional comedy. Right after commentator Kenny Smith says he might do something stupid like take off from the three point line and he's missing a couple ice cubes from the tray, Anderson attempts a dunk by throwing a lob from half court and attempting to catch it after taking off from the free throw line. The problem is that he needed five dunk attempts to complete it not including four miffed passes, which left the crowd squirming in their seats and some giggling near the end. It was, however, a pretty good dunk even if he was a foot inside the line when he made it, and if he had completed it on the first or second attempts he could have had a 50 since at that point he was jumping from the foul line and the fatigue factor hadn't begun. His second dunk he needed six attempts, and at that point a large portion of the crowd was laughing at him. Dr. J quips, "Magic. This is hard; it's harder than it looks, but it ain't that hard."
The ongoing comedy of Chris Anderson surfaced when his teammate JR Smith was dunking because Chris' passes were well off the mark, and the commentating crew joked Anderson was trying to sink his chances. The legitimacy of the contest, however, is saved by Josh Smith, whose dunks seem fresh because he's left-handed, and he has a knack for kicking his legs out and contorting his body with style. His costume change probably influenced a few other dunkers in the next contests to do something similar. In the finals Amare was outclassed by his competitor.
-JR Smith with a behind-the-back dunk, which was never seen before and has had a few variations since. It was a truly innovative dunk that was somewhat buried in the contest.
-Josh Smith takes off from a bit inside the free throw line, but the distance is ameliorated by his smooth flair. -For all the love flung toward Dr. J's dunk, it was not as pretty as Josh Smith's, although others like Michael Jordan have had better foul line dunks.
-Josh Smith jumping over Kenyon Martin sitting in a chair was a beautiful one-handed windmill. Perfect score.
-Amare Stoudemire with a one-hand dunk drifting from one side of the basket from the other while turning a little over 180 degrees from a pass he threw off the backboard on one side to Nash on the other who then passed it back by hitting it with his head soccer style. I think this was pretty overblown because the dunk itself was mediocre (it was all about the two passes) but the crowd went nuts. Perfect score.
-Josh Smith switches to a vintage Dominique Wilkins jersey in front of the legend and goes right into a huge windmill dunk, legs bent underneath him, jumping from outside the key. Perfect score.
-The night ends with a Josh Smith beautiful 360 dunk where he starts with the ball low and then throws it down windmill style, and the best part might be how he stops turning midair to dunk and then when the ball is level with the rim he quickly twists 180.
Iggy pops, but Nate steals
This contest is known as the one Andre Iguodala should have won over Nate Robinson. The judges were clearly more impressed by anything Nate did because of his size, regardless of how many attempts he needed. Josh Smith as the defending champ wasn't bad, but his tape goof-up ended any chance he had of going to the finals because people thought he was going to dunk from behind the line. Last year a one-handed free throw dunk got him a 45 and lots of oohs and aahs, while a two-handed version (which is a bet harder) granted him a 41 because of the tape confusion. I think the crowd was on Nate's side and you had to do something amazing to win them over; Josh Smith couldn't do it. Also, after an impressive Iguodala dunk, one of the best parts of the contest is Charles Barkley incessantly demanding that the film crew show Damon Jones' coat, which is a bright red disaster.
The end of the contest was a bit of a controversy. Many felt the final round shouldn't have ended in a tie and even the commentators were shocked when Iguodala's last dunk of the round was only a 44. For the tie breaker, Nate used a number of attempts that would have embarrassed Chris Anderson for a dunk that consisted of him threading the ball between his legs a couple times before passing it off the backboard to himself for a simple lazy windmill dunk. The score of 47 may have been more for his conditioning level than the dunk itself. Iggy's dunk, by contrast, was a between the legs dunk while going down the baseline, turning, and throwing it down on the other side of the basket; he also did this while falling away. It was only a 46 according to the judges, and even the crowd was peeved at Iguodala losing. They were getting restless from Nate's astonishing 14 attempts, which may have hurt Iguodala because they were exhausted when he was finally up.
-Josh Smith sets down a piece of tape well outside the free throw line, then proceeds to dunk just inside the line. No one understood his reasoning, but it was a two-handed dunk from the foul line.
-Andre Iguodala starts from out of bounds and catches a pass off the other side of the backboard to dunk it on the other side while ducking to narrowly avoid the board. Perfect score.
-Nate Robinson does a between the legs dunk, which is notable because of how difficult that is for a guy around 5' 8".
-Andre Iguodala off a bounce does JR Smith's behind-the-back dunk. Perfect score.
-Nate Robinson uses Spud Webb as a dunking prop and jumps over him for a tomahawk one-handed dunk while kicking his legs. Perfect score.
Hall of dunking fame judging panel anoints Gerald Green in Sin City
The contest featured perhaps the best set of judges, and they were some of the toughest graders to date -- Dr. J, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan (toughest judge), Kobe Bryant, and Vince Carter. The most anticipated part of the all-star weekend, however, was Charles Barkley's race with the old ref Dick Bavetta, which was a photo finish because Barkley started to show off by running backwards and Dick dove to the finish line but came up short. This was the first contest to feature a 2 minute shot clock in which to complete a dunk, which could have been called the Nate Robinson/Chris Anderson rule. A year after Iguodala is robbed of the title, Dwight Howard is nixed by the judges who don't seem to notice Dwight's sticker. Some will argue they didn't care because they could reach 12' 6", but according to my own research that is very unlikely and he actually holds the record for vertical reach at 12' 6" from a Sports Science feature. The best part of the sticker dunk is that it features Howard's face with a huge, dumb grin. He receives the second worst score in first round, but he would find redemption next year. Contrastingly, Nate gets unwavering love from even these tough judges, and gets a better score for his simple dunk where he takes from ball from the outstretched hands of a standing David Lee.
This is first contest that got prop heavy, but it wasn't excessive here. The best moment of the contest was probably Gerald Green bringing out a cardboard cutout of Nate Robinson to take over, but the flesh and blood Robinson agrees to stand in its place; the willingness to help his competitor was nice to see. Not only did Green have the cutout, but he tore off his jersey to reveal a vintage Dee Brown jersey (past winner), pumped up his sneakers, and emulated Brown's famous dunk of covering his eyes with his arm. The two then competed in the finals where Gerald Green by clear consensus won as the best dunker. Nate Robinson, however, even in his second contest looks like he's run out of tricks because his size limits what he can do, but he's surprisingly been in four contests and won three. You can see it from his last dunk in the contest where he needs the entire two minutes and the extra two attempts allowed after the buzzer to complete an attempt off the glass, which is a method for making an ordinary dunk more impressive. Gerald Green caps the night with a dunk over an empty table, which since the all-star weekend was in Las Vegas was supposed to be over a real casino table complete with cards and chips, but the league didn't want to be associated with gambling. Why exactly did they think Las Vegas was a popular destination?
-Gerald Green uses a lob from Pierce from the side of the backboard for a two-handed windmill with nearly unprecedented elevation.
-Dwight throws down a vicious one-handed windmill off two feet from outside the dotted circle (only a couple feet inside the line.) Note this is the same distance where his more famous Superman dunk was.
-Nate Robinson off a bounce one-handed dunk kicking his legs
-Dwight places a sticker near the top of the backboard with his left hand while dunking with his right, and his teammate Jameer Nelson brought out a tape measured and held up a sign that read 12' 6".
-Gerald Green does a Dee Brown "no-look" dunk where he covers his eyes with his left arm while kicking his legs jumping over Nate Robinson, who agreed to stand there for his competitor. As with all Gerald Green dunks, the elevation was amazing.
-The winning dunk was Green's one-handed big windmill over a table from a couple feet inside the free throw line from two legs, which like in Howard's case is hard to do and very impressive.
"Superman is in the building!"
The lack of star power is one of the most common complaints about the contest, but there was a huge stretch in the 90's with little big name wattage and a string of guys only known for dunking winning. Dwight Howard, however, has been starting at center for the all-star game for years, and he receives little credit for participating while other high-flyers like LeBron shy away from the contest. He's also one of the few winners to actually lead the league in dunks while holding the title of dunk contest winner. This is also another contest where everyone proclaims the dunk contest is back, baby. Dwight's dominance is completed by a couple other amazing dunks, one of which is the birthday cake (or cupcake) dunk where you can clearly see Green's head level with the rim when blew out the candle. Given his height, he was legitimately showing off a 40 inch plus vertical there. But the night belonged to Howard, who continued last year's prop run with a Superman outfit and a dunk that while impressive was definitely overrated. He took off from the same distance last year where he had actually completed a windmill dunk instead of throwing the ball inside without contact on the rim from his hand.
No one else stood a chance. Jamario Moon was completely outshone. In a more mortal contest, his first attempt where he reaches far back to grab the ball with one hand and then dunking it would have been more "notable." However, he follows that with yet another tape fiasco. He laid down masking tape a foot or two above the line, but couldn't complete it from there. Had he completed it before from that distance? He disappointed from the crowd by merely dunking it from the line, even though the next dunk was Dwight from even further in and everyone went bonkers. This isn't like the Nate over Iggy situation because Dwight's dunks were definitely better, and some of them were among the most difficult in history. Green doesn't offer up a strong defense because his last dunk was one where he does a between the legs dunk (a variation he did in the previous dunk) with his shoes off. No one knows why his shoes were off, and yes it's a little harder to dunk without your shoes, but no one cared. Dwight was the worthy winner.
In an alarming development, the league uses fan voting to decide the final round. Voting is even started at the beginning of the final round, instead of the end when, you know, you've seen the other 50% of their dunks, and that makes zero sense. Instead of using judges who are more knowledgeable about dunks and could actually do great dunks themselves the NBA decides that they'll sacrifice the quality of voting for a typical business practice of trying to seem tech-savvy and friendly with text message voting and letting the fans decide. One slightly annoying consequence is that there are no "50" dunks possible without the traditional judge based system.
-Howard left-handed windmill while his body is on the other side of the backboard, which still sounds like it's impossible. Perfect score.
-Gerald Green places a cupcake with a lit candle on the back part of the rim, and jumps high enough while dunking to blow it out. Birthday candle dunk.
-Rudy Gay pulls off a one-handed windmill that was bounced off the side of the basketball support
-Moon tries to dunk from above the line by placing tape a foot and a half before it, but instead takes off from the line and puts it in with his left hand.
-Dwight dressed up in Superman outfit and takes off from two Dwight's superman dunk. Note he took off from the same spot last year but did a windmill and connected with a real dunk. Perfect score.
-Green uses a pass that comes from behind and over the backboard, takes the bounce, and throws down a between the legs dunk with amazing elevation.
-Dwight throws the ball up, catches the bounce, jumps, taps the ball against the backboard with his left hand in midair, and dunks it with his right.
Superman defeated by the smallest of foes with the power of Kryponate
I'll defend the modern dunk contest to my deathbed for whatever inexplicable reason, but this one features three of the worst factors. One is that Nate Robinson is here again, and he should have only been in two contests because he was limited in his arsenal and his alarming number of attempts destroyed any momentum in the contest. Another is that fan voting is once again used in the final round to determine the winner. The collective mind of NBA fans who vote are worse than an ant colony trying to use NASA controls. The third one is the use of props and costumes taken to the extreme with Nate Robinson dressing up in full green kyptonite regalia and Dwight Howard going into an actual phone booth to change into Superman. Bringing in the second rim was fine, but the costume was excessive. A more subtle ploy was used by Rudy Fernandez paying homage to the first Spanish NBA player Fernando Martin by wearing his jersey during a dunk where he throws it off the backboard using a behind the back pass to himself. It wasn't a good night for Rudy, however, as the last successful white dunker was Brent Barry, and Rudy was scored way too low on his second attempt.
For the second year in a first, Dwight's first round was perfect, although I didn't think his first attempt this year with an off-the-bounce windmill warranted a 50. Ultimately, the level of props was a little too much, but it was a great contest because Nate and Howard are likable enough that they pull it off, and they're good sports working together. Howard basically let Nate win by letting Kryptonate jump over him while he wore the Superman cape. They're both interesting counters to each other as the best dunk contest center versus the arguably best or second best under 5' 10" guy in the NBA contest. Howard also makes a tactical mistake in ending with a basic free throw line dunk, which has been done many times, although it was surprising to see the center run the court and jumping off one leg when all his dunks before were from two legs. After receiving a 50 in his first dunk in the starting round while Rudy and JR Smith received low scores, he should have laid off on his special phone booth, 12 foot rim special until the last dunk because it would have been fresh in everyone's mind. Imagine using the phone booth to one-up Nate's dunk over him with that crazy 12 foot rim. He also could have used the booth to make his free throw line dunk seem better, as it would have been apt for Superman to fly like that. Overall, it's another contest where Nate should have lost to someone else, but it was entertaining nonetheless.
-JR Smiths throws the ball up, but uses the second bounce to complete a one-handed windmill with huge elevation.
-Rudy uses a Pau Gasol pass off the other side of the backboard to take the ball with one hand and scoop it under and up for a dunk while his head nearly grazes the board, which is reminiscent of a famous Dr. J play.
-Dwight brings in another rim set up at 12 feet and dresses up as Superman in a phone booth, and dunks it with a pass from Nelson for an unconfirmed tie at the record height previously done by Globetrotters Michael Wilson.
-Dwight throws the ball off the side of the backboard and throws it in with one hand with amazing extension and power.
-Nate in his green Knicks uniform with a green ball as Kyrponate jumps over Dwight Howard for a basic one-hand dunk, which is made incredible by the height difference even with using his off arm to push off Dwight's shoulder.
-Dwight dunks from the free throw line, and the crowd reacts like a bench player just made a layup.
Contest crashes and Nate Robinson is three time winner
Gerald Wallace was in the contest, which is surprising for people who watched him that year because he wasn't getting up as high anymore. The league loves to have all-stars also compete in the contest, as Wallace was the Bobcats' first ever all-star that year, but by the time that most high-flyers are good enough to be an all-star they will have lost some of their vertical leaping. Note this guy was in the 2002 contest as well; that's a long gap for this event. Shannon Brown was also a dud. He's had amazing dunks in games, like the one where it looks like he stepped on a trampoline, but it didn't translate well as he used a full run-up to pull off a simple ball switching from one hand to the other, and another that was an alley-oop from Kobe. The greatest thing was his elevation, but in the NBA contest where 5' 8" Nate Robinson can do a between the legs dunk you need more than that.
DeRozan had never lost a contest before, but he had never gone up against Nate "Robbing Rightful Dunk Contest Winners" Robinson in fan voting. Nate rarely dunks while dribbling up to the basket, instead using an often difficult pass for either flair or to allow himself to get a full jump. In the final round, Nate's first dunk was the worst of the night, but he finished well with his second one. Truthfully, this was maybe the weakest post-Vince Carter era dunk contest, as DeMar DeRozan was arguably the best guy in this contest, but he was much better next year and he didn't even make the final round. His last dunk was pretty good, barely not making the cut for the "notable" dunks because it combined a two-handed windmill with nice flair wih his legs scissoring and a fair amount of distance covered. After a weak contest, every pundit likes to say, "Kill the contest!" or "How can we save the contest?" but these people have no long-term memories and don't realize there have been terrible contests before. You have to be patient, and be grateful for the amazing display you will eventually receive. Notable missed dunk: Shannon Brown tries a Terrence Stansbury 360 statue of liberty dunk from the dotted circle.
-DeRozan wakes up the crowd with an off the side of the backboard one-handed windmill dunk. Perfect score.
-Nate Robinson throws the ball off the glass for a double pump reverse.
Griffin soars over car for victory and endorsement from KIA
In one of the strongest contests, Blake Griffin's suspicious win cast an unfair pallor over the rest of the great dunks. As objective as you can be in a contest like this, DeMar DeRozan should have gone to the final round instead of Blake Griffin. DeRozan's off the basket support arm between the legs dunk was objectively better than Blake Griffin's off the side of the backboard basic windmill. It's harder to do a dunk off the support arm, and a between the legs is much more difficult than the windmill. A conspiracy theory here is that the NBA rigged the contest for the rookie star Griffin, and looking back it's not a crazy theory. Griffin would dunk over the NBA's signature car, and he would later star in a number of commercials for the vehicle.
What was lost, however, was the strength of the rest of the contest. JaVale McGee was a skinny clone of Dwight Howard, doing some of the most difficult dunks in the history of the contest. He's also an agile seven-footer who can palm the ball like a baseball and threw down a beautiful, cradle the ball dunk. With his height and 7' 6" wingspan he can do dunks no one else can. DeMar DeRozan was also a great dunker. There are a number of guys who can jump high, but he combines that with great style. That's what separates the legendary dunkers like Wilkins or Carter from everyone else. I barely have enough space to even mention Ibaka, whose dunk where he grabs a stuffed animal with his teeth near rim level would have probably ranked higher in another contest. Griffin also wasn't exactly a travesty. His elevation is among the best in contest history. Notable missed dunk: Blake Griffin's first attempt was a 360, off two legs, two hand dunk where he brought the ball far behind his head. What he completed was inferior, but the first attempt had style and power.
-DeMar's first is an off the basket support arm between the legs dunk.
-Ibaka behind the line (barely) for a dunk. It's rare that guys actually jump without a foot over the line (Pippen is one example of someone who did.)
-McGee brings out another basket so he can dunk on both in one jump with a ball in each hand by throwing one off the first backboard, dunking on the first one, and catching the pass with the other hand to dunk on the other basket. Since a backboard is six feet wide and both were lined up with a small space in between, he dunked with a span of over six feet between the two rims.
-DeMar's beautiful Show Stopper -- off the bounce, cups ball with one hand and swings it in a 180 degree arc and dunks on other side.
-McGee dunks three balls in the same jump aided by a toss from his teammate for the third one.
-Griffin off a backboard, catches it, and dunks with his arm in the rim.
-McGee rock-a-baby dunk after he passed the rim (copying a Kenny Walker dunk that won him a dunk contest, but McGee had to duck under the backboard)
-Blake "Half lion, half eagle" Griffin jumps over the hood of a midsize KIA sedan, filmed by Baron Davis, for a basic two hand dunk.
Defense of the Modern Dunk Contest
If you at least skimmed the history above, you'll realize there have been a number of great dunks post-2000. Every guy the media like to say the dunk contest is dead and it pales in comparison to the past great ones. However, if you go back through the 80's and 90's contests, there are a number of forgettable events and terrible dunks. The problem here is we remember the highlights from the past and erase anything mediocre from our memories, selectively remembering dunks from years of contests to unfairly compare it to the current one. When you do that, nothing can compete.
A common complaint is that stars never compete in the contest anymore, as if every year in the past all the legends competed. While it's true you had Michael, Wilkins, and Dr. J in the same event, that was only for one year when it was still a fresh event. Barkley always turned down the contest, and in the first NBA one Ralph Sampson was a participant. Sampson! He was a 7' 4" plodding center; it was like having Yao Ming compete. There was also a six-year period in the 90's where a bunch of no-name players kept winning before a very young Kobe won in '97. Additionally, Kobe winning it in '97 supports the thesis that very young, potential filled players typically make up the events. If you think this year has no good players, wait a few years to see what happens with Paul George. Michael Jordan himself competed as a rookie, and it's not like he was winning titles and dunk contests at the same time. It's a young man's event.
LeBron James is one big name that gets thrown around for the most wanted dunk contest participant, but I'm doubtful he'd be very impressive. In the high school contest which he took part in he had a number of dunks lacking in creativity although with great elevation, and he only won because it was staged in Cleveland and he was already a star. He's a tease with the contest, once announcing from the 2009 contest that he would be in it next year. If you do pine for a top-level talent for the modern contest, remember that the guy starting for the all-star team at center since 2008 and a two-time defensive player of the year was in it three times and won it once. This is arguably the second most coveted and valuable player in the league, and he receives little credit for participating.
In fact, if you look at the contest's star power year by year you see that it's largely remained constant. I categorized every dunker since the first contest in 1985 as either a superstar, a star, a fringe star, a solid starter, or a bench/marginal talent. I also gave each category a number starting at 15 for superstar and going down by 5 until you get to the bench guys at -5. It's not a perfect system and there could be arguments made for who's what, but it's a good representation of the star power of each contest. You can see from the graphs below how the star ratings change with time. I ended in 2009 because it's too early to tell which guys from 2010 and 2011 will be stars or not. Blake Griffin, however, definitely helped the 2011 contest.
1984 and 1985 definitely had the most star power, but as the first couple contests it also had the advantage of freshness. Guys typically only do a couple contests, so if the first one was in 1980 then someone like Dr. J probably wouldn't have been in both mid 80's ones. One problem with the total ratings is that the modern contest has only four guys dunking, while back in the first couple contests it was nine.
The average rating takes a few dips here and there, but there isn't a clear trend. It's interesting that not even the contest with Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Drexler, and Dr. J didn't warrant a higher rating, but you also had no name scrubs like Joshua Treadway. The 2000 contest, however, stands just as tall because you had Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Francis competing in the finals.
Breaking down by category, it's apparent that the common dunker is a solid starter like a Jason Richardson or a Darrell Griffith aka Dr. Dunkenstein. A number of the "stars," guys who have made an all-star team, have been terrible in the contest, like Jerry Stackhouse or Gerald Wallace in 2010. The league shouldn't push too hard for star power because what's more important is the quality of the dunks. It's also apparent that superstar level talent rarely competes. There's Dr. J, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Dwight Howard. Some may argue Dominique Wilkins is on that level, but he's known for his dunks as much as anything.
There is nothing wrong with the modern, post-Vince Carter dunk contest. There have been some inventive, unique, and amazing dunks, and the contests compare favorably to the ones that came before. The worst contests were probably in the 90's, and going by star rating '95 was probably the worst as Isiah Rider was the most recognizable name among the group of Harold Miner, Jamie Watson, Antonio Harvey, Tim Perry, and Tony Dumas. Comparing back to the old contests, the level of difficulty has been raised to a high level, and each year still brings a few dunks that have never been done before. Jason Richardson, Desmond Mason, Dwight Howard, Josh Smith, Gerald Green, Blake Griffin, Nate Robinson -- they all have carried the torch for the dunk contest, adding worthy dunks to the all-time highlight reel year after year.
The Ideal Rules
After watching every dunk contest since 2000, I noticed a few flaws that crop up every couple years. The league usually finds a way to fix it. For example, after Nate Robinson used almost five minutes to put a single dunk in, the league mandated a 2 minute shot clock for a dunk to be completed. In recent years it's been prop heavy, and it's gotten a little silly. Not only did you have Blake jumping over a car with a choir, but JaVale McGee used up a lot of time bringing in a backboard and having his mother slowly walk a third ball to the court. Another problem is when guys aren't given enough attempts for a good dunk, and the rules call an attempt where the guy loses the ball but it bounces off the backboard and goes in an actual dunk attempt. That's ridiculous.
With the level of difficulty high and so many contests already in the books, you definitely need to allow guys to try something tricky that may take time or bring in props. However, moderation is the key here. Each round a guy can have one dunk with a 2 minute time limit, while the others are 1 minutes. Also, you have a limit of one non-basketball prop per contest. A basketball prop that doesn't count is a teammate or another ball, as those are normal things to see on a court; non-basketball props are cupcakes and midsize sedans. Four or five guys are a nice number, and the top prize should be a higher amount or something like a Nike contract for a shoe deal.
You also need the typical judge panel to score the votes. They know how good a dunk is, not a bunch of teenagers who can't jump and barely know who the players are. Give the first round three dunks, and the final round two dunks. However, in the first round one score can be dropped, meaning someone with two great dunks can basically take a bye with his third one, but it also allows for everyone else to make up ground. In the final round, the winner is determined by the highest combined score of the two final dunks plus the average of his two best dunks from the previous round. This helps someone with a dominating performance throughout the entire contest rather than a guy who barely gets to the finals and steals the win when everyone will remember the other guy.
What to Expect for 2012
In just a few hours, Jeremy Evans, Paul George, Chase Budinger, and Derrick Williams will compete in the dunk contest. People will complain that there are no stars, but remember that's what most contests are like, and these guys are young enough that someone like George may become a star in a couple years. It's cognitive bias -- at the time, no one is a star, but years down the road one will become a star and retroactively we'll award the contest with having a star.
Paul George showed off in the rookie-sophomore game with nice dunks including an arm in the rim Vince Carter dunk. John Wall also put on a show, even doing JR Smith's behind the back dunk; hopefully he'll be in it next year. Don't sleep on Chase Budinger and his 38.5 inch vertical. Jeremy Evans is my pick for the winner because he's been lobbying to be in the contest all year; he should have a few tricks ready. Williams is also a worthy guy.
The worst part of the contest is that fans will decide the winner and there are only three dunks by each guy. Fortunately, there doesn't appear to be anyone with an unfair advantage with the fans like a Nate Robinson or Shumpert, who pulled out of the contest with an injury. Shumpert was going to use Jeremy Lin in a dunk, jumping over the point guard sitting in his famous couch with a windmill. No one would be able to top that -- having Lin throw the pass, that is. It's a wide open contest, which could make it one of the most exciting to date.
Don't lament the death of the dunk contest. It's alive and profuse with creativity and athleticism.